This is an exclusive Moms Clean Air Force interview with Sacoby Wilson, Director, Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health (CEEJH), Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental HealthSchool of Public Health:
Can you please define environmental justice?
The Environmental Justice movement seeks to address the way in which marginalized communities, such as tribal populations and people of color have been exposed to environmental health risks at higher levels than other people. These groups are not fully empowered to participate in decision-making regarding the environmental hazards in their community. The hazards could be coal or nuclear power plants, chicken farms, petrochemical operations, pipelines and fracking infrastructure, or heavily trafficked roadways.
You’ve been studying environmental health and environmental justice for many years. What sparked your interest in this?
I grew up in a town in Mississippi that was close to many sources of environmental contamination. My home was near a major highway, a sewage treatment plant and a concrete facility. My Dad was a pipefitter; his work took him into many contaminated sites. He worked in a coal-fired power plant, a nuclear power plant, and work sites contaminated with asbestos. He has asbestosis now, which makes it difficult for him to breathe.
In college, I attended a conference in North Carolina at Elizabeth City State University where I met Dr. Robert Bullard, the father of the environmental justice movement. I also met Benjamin Chavis, who commissioned the 1987 report “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States of America”while at the United Church of Christ. This was the first report to show how all across America, people of color and low-income populations were disproportionately burdened by hazardous waste sites. Meeting these two leaders helped me see that this was my path.
What can Moms Clean Air Force members do if they live in an area impacted by pollution or environmental justice issues?
The EPA website has lots of tools to help people learn about environmental concerns in their communities. The EJ screen tool is a great resource. You put in your address and get a map of the hazards in the area. It shows sites that have permits through the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, Superfund sites and more. It can also show you how your community ranks against other communities in terms of risk for proximity to hazardous waste, traffic related air pollution and health risks. Often people don’t think of traffic pollution as a health problem, but it is. Diesel exhaust from trucks or even school buses can cause headaches, short-term problems with coordination and attention. Traffic pollution also causes particulate pollution, which causes problems like asthma, low birth weight, stroke, birth defects and cancer.
How can our members fight for environmental justice?
Environmental injustice happens because of a disconnect between people in marginalized communities and the government bodies that make decisions about permits and development. Planning boards often grant permits to potential polluters on the basis that new developments will bring jobs to the community. But this is increasingly not the case. Industrial facilities that emit pollutants are increasingly mechanized, so once they are built they aren’t employing many people. Yet the pollutants they emit are harming the people around the facility, so the community isn’t coming out ahead.
Moms can be more involved in zoning, state and local decision-making to make sure that facilities in their area are safe for residents. Join a planning board. Go to zoning meetings! Moms can ask local officials, “What is this project bringing to our neighborhood in terms of equitable access to food, transportation and housing? What are the risks this project brings to our neighborhood? What vulnerable populations will be close to this project?”
They can also ask that baseline data be collected for environmental monitoring of existing facilities that are asking for expansion permits. Moms can ask for new laws to be passed that ask for this data up front before permits are granted. State and local governments can ask for laws that have a more preventative focus – putting the burden on companies to disclose what they will be emitting and how it may impact the health of local people. If we don’t know what a facility is going to emit, why should we grant them a permit? Many areas rely on federal environmental laws in this process. But really that is the floor, the minimum of environmental protection. Local governments can ask for more information and better protections when companies ask for facility permits.
We need more people engaged and fighting for the health of our kids. If kids live in toxic environments we are throwing them away. How can we put America first if we don’t put our kids first? We have to remind planning boards that even if companies promise profit to communities if they endanger our kids, we aren’t going to come out ahead.
Are there any upcoming environmental justice events?
On May 12ththe University of Maryland School of Public Health will host a symposium on Environmental Justice and Health Disparities in Maryland and the Washington, DC area. We are bringing together people from all of these communities and local efforts to share knowledge and network on environmental justice issues. You can register here.